I Had It All Figured Out
Updated: Jan 8
Discovering new film scores, monthly — My Adventures in Underscore, part 15
I was enjoying a peak period in the mid-1990s. After the ups and downs of early fatherhood and a derailed career, things were looking up in work and in love. I’d transitioned from working in magazines, and taking pictures of computers, to becoming a software designer—creating art for computers. I’d also met a very bright and attractive young woman (who was creative and contrarian like me) and we were soon shacked up and making a life together.
I thought I had it all figured out. Nothing left to do but pop in a CD and enjoy the ride.
This was a peak period for record collecting as well. My stack of soundtracks was growing steadily, and I had acquired a second wooden case to display my 150 or so albums. Between all the used record shops (for bargains), the chain record shops (for new releases), and Intrada (for the hard-to-find collectibles) I had a dozen places to shop around town—and to unwind. The familiar click-click-click of plastic jewel cases was a soothing sound on weekends when I didn’t have custody of the kids.
Oh yeah. The kids. James and Michael were in their mid-teens and kind of a handful. They moved to the other side of the Bay Area from me and weren’t happy about it. And their little sister Jessie was ten years younger and missing her dad. (The boys missed me too, but they weren’t going to actually admit it.) So I had some serious juggling to do make the most of parenting a day a week and every other weekend. Especially since my girlfriend Laura (who was nine years younger than me) wasn’t keen on being a stepmother in her twenties. It was all on my shoulders. But I would figure it out. I always did.
Is it any wonder I kept distracting myself with soundtracks?
The label to beat at this time was Varèse Sarabande. With 25 releases a year, their ubiquitous burgundy-colored spines were easy to spot and impossible to ignore. (Once, in a fit of boredom, I tried organizing my CDs by the color of their packages, in a rainbow spectrum. Ultimately, it was unsatisfying. Not because I couldn’t find anything—I could remember that Twilight’s Last Gleaming was light blue and Hellraiser was yellow. But so many Varèse albums were bunched up between the orange and purple ones, it didn’t work.)
They had some great releases from this period, like Carlito’s Way, featuring a ten-minute tour de force of chase music. Besides helicopters, trains inspire powerful movie music, and the subway climax was exceptional. (Plus, Penelope Ann Miller reminded me a bit of my new love.) I was crazy about Elliot Goldenthal’s debut on Demolition Man, a shiny, sinewy composition for Sylvester Stallone’s cop-out-of-time action fantasy. I didn’t know much about either composer at the time, and the booklets in the CD were no help—most of Varèse’s releases had a measly four page insert with a few black and white pictures. I wished for more information.
So I bought a couple of CDs every month and kept them playing in the background of my life. Mostly in the car, as I was now commuting from Oakland to Novato for work (30 miles each way) or Oakland to San Ramon to see my kids (27 miles each way). The worst was the once-a-week trip from work to kids (57 miles) which usually happened at rush hour and often took two hours. Playing an uptempo score like Hans Zimmer’s Broken Arrow was just an exercise in frustration every time the red lights glowed, so I switched on NPR instead. On the way home I tuned into KALX for some kicky alternative music like Combustible Edison or the Pizzacato Five to get me home in a good mood—where Laura and I would be planning our wedding for next spring. That made me almost as happy as the music did.
There still weren’t too many people I could talk to about soundtracks. In my experience, even film fans have only one or two favorite soundtracks, most often from a movie that they enjoyed for other reasons. For most folks, orchestral music in the movies is an afterthought, if they notice it at all. I was still listening to Robert Emmett’s Soundtrack show on the radio, and taking his recommendations at great expense to my wallet. But new info was not available. At least, until one fateful day.
A new Tower Records had opened in Emeryville near our house, so I had to check it out. One of the best features of the late and lamented chain was an extensive newsstand, well-stocked with publications that you didn’t see in the supermarket checkout lines. Like Anything That Moves, a subversive journal for literary bisexuals. Or Skin Art, with color photos of extensively inked anatomy. I had come looking for a copy of Beach Culture, to admire the transgressive graphic design by David Carson. What I found instead took my breath away.
I crouched down to inspect the bottom shelf, the section of the racks reserved for the low sellers, the remaindered and discontinued. Scanning the titles, I saw a funky music clef that was part of a magazine logo. Reaching for the rag, I was surprised by the ordinary bond paper cover, rough and scratchy in my hands. I studied a blurry photo of a cheerful, bespectacled fellow who was identified as “Patrick Doyle.” The same guy who wrote that train music. So that’s what he looked like… kind of nerdy. I looked again at the logo, a blocky, hand-drawn affair bracketed by a crude sketch of an LP and CD. The funky clef was doing double duty as an F.
As in Film Score Monthly.
I squatted in front of that rack for a long time, ignoring the teenaged girls around me leafing through Spin and Pulse! for pop star news. I hadn’t seen a magazine like this since the days of Randall Larson’s CinemaScore, which had published only a handful of irregular issues (but had the advantage of a hefty page count.) Film Score had fewer pages, but also much smaller, densely-packed type. It was kind of a pain to read, especially as a card-carrying typographic snob. But to paraphrase our President at the time: “It’s the Content, stupid.” I scoured the racks, found a second issue with Randy Newman on the cover—and bought them both.
In no time at all, I was a subscriber. A third issue arrived before I could finish the first two. Just a few weeks earlier, I was lamenting the lack of any news about film scores, and now I was getting a torrent, monthly. I was already a big consumer of movie magazines, from the scholarly Film Comment (which I’d read since college) to the glossy Premiere (my current fave). What FSM lacked in polish was made up for in grit and obsessive detail. I got to know the stable of writers pretty quickly, who all had their own beats to cover, but mostly I was hooked by the editor-in-chief, who wrote the introduction to each issue with a candor and self-deprecating wit that I had rarely seen but found completely captivating.
Lukas Kendall was, apparently, a college student at Amherst who loved movie music enough to self-publish a 40+ page magazine in his spare time. I wanted a friend to talk about soundtracks with and he was the next best thing. Even if a particular issue’s subject didn’t grab me, I devoured his chatty intro which included news of upcoming movie assignments, CD releases and funny asides. I admired his enterprise. Until one time a year later, when Lukas made some snarky remarks about the design of other magazines, dismissing the eye-catching graphics and slick readability of magazines like Entertainment Weekly. “We don’t need to spend money on that!” he crowed sarcastically.
Well, them’s fighting words. I had made a career out of designing publications and I liked the way EW looked. In fact, I had chosen to work in magazines because it was my favorite design medium. So I Wrote. A. Letter. On paper. I complimented Lukas on his baby but told him in no uncertain terms that his magazine could use a redesign. And I was the guy to do it. Gratis. (Well, for a free subscription. I had to attach some value to it.) I dropped that missive in the post and went on with my life.
There was plenty of life to deal with. In the year since I had started working in software, the company began to flounder, leading to cutbacks, changes and lots of pressure. I had to figure out which employees in my department could keep their jobs and who were potential candidates for a “reduction in force.” I was doing a lot less design and a lot more management, and rising to the level of my respective incompetence.
Things were equally complicated at home. My new marriage was off to a shaky start. Instead of bringing us closer, it was bringing out our differences. My kids needed more and more of my time, and I was trying to figure out a balance between being a father and a new husband. That’s when the phone rang.
It was seven o’clock on a Saturday evening, and I was sitting in our blue papasan with my black cat in my lap. Without a TV in the house, we usually alternated playing our tunes. When I finished a Morricone, Laura might cue up Indigo Girls. She was upstairs at her jewelry bench, and I had my nose buried in a magazine. In order to keep up with a dozen subscriptions, I was flipping pages as fast as I could. Essentially, I kept flipping until I found something interesting, and if I didn’t, that magazine was off to the recycling bin.
I wasn’t expecting a call, so when it came I had to pry my feline friend off my lap and carry him across the room. I barely made it to the cordless on its base before Tony leapt to the floor and I could pick up.
“Hi, Joe? This is Lukas Kendall, from Film Score Monthly.” Holy smokes, is this him? He sounded younger than I expected, spoke fast, and didn’t mince words. I couldn’t quite tell if he was efficient, or awkward, or both. It took me a minute to catch up and catch on. In less than twenty minutes, we covered everything: He was grateful for my offer, and would love having me redesign his magazine. I was quietly horrified that he’d been working in MS Word and suggested he switch to “real” layout software. He agreed. “How soon can you start?” he asked. Right away!
Of course I couldn’t wait to tear into the project. Work was a drag, my relationship was fraught, but soundtracks? That’s my happy place. I pulled out The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen box set that I’d gotten as a wedding gift and cued up The Time Tunnel. Johnny Williams’ TV scores excited me as a child and never lost their power to inspire me. But maybe it would have been more appropriate to play Lost In Space—because I was in denial and not figuring out the really important stuff.
I did create a new template for FSM that Fall, including a 40-page style guide that Lukas could follow to format his articles. He was still a one-man band, editing, producing and distributing his mag, and I hoped to make things a little easier. At least it would be easier to read, and I got a thrill seeing my name mentioned in the last issue of 1996.
Little did I know that 1997 would be the worst year of my life. First, I had to fire half of my department, which was a miserable, gut-churning experience. Apparently no bad deed goes unpunished, because I was also laid off after my dirty work was done.
Laura and I came to the mutual conclusion that our marriage wasn’t working, and we spent the next six months doing our own divorce as amicably (and inexpensively) as possible. By October, I was “celebrating” my 40th birthday single and unemployed in a one bedroom apartment, with only my cat, computer and CDs to keep me company. At least I had all the free time my kids could ask for.
I called Lukas to check in. We had been speaking regularly, if at odd hours on weekends. Shouldn’t a college kid be out partying on Saturday night? Not this guy, apparently. It had been a busy year for him as well. I wanted to know how his move to Los Angeles was going, how the redesign and new distribution was working out. Turns out he was overwhelmed by the workload, and needed to make a change. He had big plans, and they didn't include laboring over line breaks and column width. You know, the stuff I liked to do.
“Listen, since you’re out of a job, do you want to work for me? I can’t pay much, but it should be fun.”
I said yes on the spot. We would figure out the rest later.
To be continued...
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